06 April 2009

"Maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled..."

Who's to blame?

It's an essential question, perhaps the essential question to the angry wronged person. We want to know who's responsible. We then may be able to demand recompense or a punishment befitting the wrong doing. Or maybe we'll at least now where to direct our anger.

Watch the frustration of the dispossessed in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Surely the man behind the tractor, preparing to level the home is not to blame. He is, after all, merely in the employ of a company assigning him this dirty work. And by the way, that dirty work will allow him to feed his family. It is though economic times and he can't be blamed for making a buck where he can.

So, okay its not his fault, who's then? The bank? And where exactly are they and who within the bank may one direct their ire? But is not a bank comprised of many people who as a group act in the interests of the bottom line and are not able to afford such luxuries as compassion?

Maybe the government. But the government is the people and we are the people. Surely no elected official would assume responsibility nor even a body of representatives.

We see throughout the story that the police are placed in the role of the heavy. But they are merely the muscles of the law. As heartless as they may may be, they are in the service of maintaining order in a society sorely in need of it.

So the Joads and the many others of America's Central Plains who were victims of both the Great Depression and the cruel effects of the Dust Bowl must push on. Suffering equal parts sorrow and anger, tempered by the hope that keeps the fires of the human spirit burning through the coldest winters. They push on.

Most people need to know why. Why they have lost their homes, their livelihood, perhaps even loved ones. Sure they'll keep trying to make the best of things. But in the mean time answer them this: why are we made to suffer so? And what can we do about it? Don't tell a person there is nothing to be done. A person who is powerless is helpless and defeated. Tom Joad, for one, can't accept that. At the end of the film he vows to find out. He tells his Ma: "maybe I can just find out somethin', just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that's wrong and see if they ain't somethin' that can be done about it. I ain't thought it out all clear, Ma. I can't. I don't know enough."

If he can just find out "somethin,'" he'll surely feel better. Because he just doesn't "know enough." Information is power. A person armed with information is far deadlier than one armed with a gun. The suffering of people can make for an epic tragedy but the story takes another much more powerful dimension when there are those like Tom Joad who ask: why?

There are some obvious and clear enemies in The Grapes of Wrath such as employers who'll not pay a living wage because they can get away with and because they know its better than nothing and hell there are thousands of others who'll take the pay if you won't. And then there are the employees and cops who'll call anyone who questions them "a Red." And say, Tom wants to know, just what is "a Red," anyway? Maybe its something you call someone to divert people from hearing what they're saying. If you don't like the message, kill the messenger, a much used and cowardly tactic of the powerful.

The Grapes of Wrath is an amazingly radical film (which is particularly odd given that it was directed by the relatively conservative john Ford). It's strikingly anti authoritarian. It is a rallying cry for people to band together and question and challenge anyone in power, to not meekly accept their lot.

It's also a clarion call for a united front of the people to challenge the faceless bureaucracy that oppresses them. For as Tom says: "fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody.... " One big soul. What a mighty force for change that can be. What a radical notion. What a scary thought for those powers that be.

Perhaps Tom's parting words to his mother say it all: "Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."

If not, surely these words by Ma Joad do capture the spirit of the film: "Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."

A people bowed but not broken. A people made to suffer for years of government neglect and greed and service to businesses and the rich. But a blame so diffused its hard to figure out just exactly where to direct that anger.

The Grapes of Wrath (based, of course, on John Steinbeck's novel) is not incidentally one of the most visually stunning films ever made. It also features a fantastic cast led by Henry Fonda as Tom and Jane Darwell as Ma. The film hasn't aged a day since its debut. If anything, given the times we live in, its fresher than ever.


Kate Gabrielle said...

Fabulous post, as always. The Grapes of Wrath is really one of my favorites, and I've always been curious, like you, about how it turned out so progressive with John Ford at the helm! Except for the dry, vast landscapes it could easily have been a Capra film. I just realized: did Fonda & Capra ever work together? They would have made a fantastic team.

Richard Hourula said...

I don't think Ford and Capra ever worked together. It could have only worked if one produced and the other directed, but you're right, it would have been interesting.